The activists of Advent

Text: Luke 1:39-56 (Mary’s song)

What flows from the silence and prayer of Advent? Judging from the song that Mary sings in today’s reading, we could be forgiven for answering “revolution” instead of “Christmas!”

Mary is often portrayed as being meek and obedient. But she doesn’t pull any punches when she sings in joy after arriving at the house of her elderly cousin Elizabeth. Mary sings a song of justice upon discovering that the words of the Angel Gabriel are true and that, just like herself, Elizabeth is carrying a miracle baby.

According to Luke, both Mary and Elizabeth conceive a son through the power of the Holy Spirit. Elizabeth gives birth to John the Baptist in her old age. And as we will hear tomorrow on Christmas Eve (and which we just heard in our Church School pageant), Mary gives birth to Jesus.

Three weeks ago, we began Advent by thinking about it as a time of silent gestation. The model for this is Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah who is struck mute for 40 weeks by the Angel Gabriel when he expresses skepticism at the prospect that he and Elizabeth will become first-time parents in their old age.

The time of gestation for Elizabeth and Mary yields not just two important births – that of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth — but also hope for social reform and political revolution.

Mary sings about mighty kings being deposed from their thrones; of lowly people being raised to high places; of the hungry being filled with good things; and of the rich being sent away empty.

She suggests that what is born at Christmas is not just her miracle child, but a radical social upheaval that will create the realm of God on earth as it is in heaven.

But how are her radical hopes connected to silence of Advent? I found an answer last Sunday in an e-newsletter by the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr of New Mexico.

“The effectiveness of action depends on the source from which it springs. If it comes out of the false self with its shadow side, it is limited. But if it comes out of being immersed in God, it can be extremely effective. The contemplative state, like the vocation of Mary, brings Christ into the world.”

Rohr continues, “I founded the Center for Action and Contemplation in 1987 because I wanted to connect the two. Over the years, I had met many social activists who advocated for crucial issues but who were not working from an energy of love. They were still living out of their false self with a need to win and look good.

They might have answers, but they were not themselves the answer. In fact, they were often part of the problem. That’s one reason that most revolutions fail and too many reformers self-destruct. That’s why, I believe, Jesus and other great spiritual teachers emphasize transformation of consciousness and soul.

Without inner transformation, there is no lasting reform or revolution. For instance, when a subjugated people rise to power, they often become as dominating as their oppressors.

Or, we might be allured by a new agenda that looks like enlightenment. But then we discover it’s run by unenlightened people who love themselves but do not love God or others.

Untransformed liberals lack the ability to sacrifice the self or create lasting foundations. They cannot sit still in a patient, compassionate, and humble way. It is no surprise that Jesus prayed not just for fruit, but ‘fruit that will last. (John 15:16).

Untransformed conservatives, on the other hand, tend to idolize anything that lasts, and then avoid the question, ‘Is it actually bearing any fruit?’ This is the perennial battle between idealism and pragmatism, and romanticism and rationalism.

To help us move beyond the categories liberal and conservative we can integrate our activism with a contemplative mind and heart. Once we learn to look at life from the contemplative eyes of the True Self, our politics and economics change on their own. Once we see things contemplatively, we can embrace our shadow and live at peace with those who are different. From a contemplative stance, we know almost naturally what action is required.”

I resonate with these words by Richard Rohr. When I was in my 20s, I was in an almost constant state of agitation about the injustices of the world and the need for radical social change. But I discovered that most of us involved in the movement were ungrounded. We fought over petty issues and sometimes went a bit crazy. This is one of the reasons that our efforts to protest war and increase grassroots democracy were ineffectual.

So, in my 30’s I slunk away from radical politics to lick my wounds and seek a spiritual path that might yield a measure of healing. Eventually, this led me back to church, to the stories of Jesus as a model of death and resurrection, and to mentors like Richard Rohr who bring the wisdom of the ages, both Christian and non-Christian, to bear on personal and social struggles.

Whatever our attitude toward Luke’s fanciful tales about Elizabeth, Zechariah and Mary that we have heard this Advent, I am glad they can help us connect silence with the work of social activism.

Spirituality can become self-righteous anger, arrogance, and even madness. Nevertheless, we need spirit for the church’s work of outreach and justice. So, during Advent and Christmas, I give thanks that we can ground our spirits with soulful tales of silence, babies, and shepherds. In the church, these elements can help us to tether our soaring spirits and keep us centred and sane in the midst of our struggles for social reform.

Today, our silent preparations of Advent are coming to a close, and our joyful Christmas carols will soon burst forth.

The time of gestation is almost over and rebirth is imminent. And so, tomorrow, we will say again two words that cause corrupt rulers everywhere to shake in their boots. They are the same two words that make the hearts of partisans of justice and love leap in joy – “Merry Christmas!”

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